Wednesday, December 23, 2015

On the Night of Nativity - A Poem by St. Ephraim the Syrian and a Selection of Nativity Icons

On the Night of Nativity

Pure is the present night, in which the Pure One appeared, Who came to purify us!
Let our hearing be pure, and the sight of our eyes chaste, and the feeling of the heart holy, and the speech of the mouth sincere!

The present night is the night of reconciliation; therefore, let no one be wroth against his brother and offend him!

This night gave peace to the whole world, and so, let no one threaten.  This is the night of the Most Meek One; let no one be cruel!

This is the night of the Humble One; let no one be proud!

Now is the day of joy; let us not take revenge for offences!  Now is the day of good will; let us not be harsh. 

On this day of tranquility, let us not become agitated by anger!

Today God came unto sinners; let not the righteous exalt himself over sinners!

Today the Most Rich One became poor for our sake; let the rich man invite the poor to his table!

Today we received a gift which we did not ask for; let us bestow alms to those who cry out to us and beg!

The present day has opened the door of heaven to our prayers; let us also open our door to those who ask of us forgiveness!

Today the Godhead placed upon Himself the seal of humanity, and humanity has been adorned with the seal of Godhead!

St. Ephraim the Syrian
(circa 306-373)

Nativity Icons

Eastern Orthodox iconography uses a multi-layered method of painting that has been described as beginning with the non-being of darkness and moving into the light of life.  Icons are 'theology in color' and 'windows into eternity'.  And given their role over centuries in parish churches and monasteries throughout the world, they have also played the part of a 'picture Bible' for those who could not read the words of the Scriptures for themselves.

Eastern Orthodox icons of the Nativity are busy.  They depict the entire story of the Nativity in multiple scenes.  But there are details that will surprise.  First of all, Mary gives birth to the incarnate Son of God in a cave.  And secondly, the manger where Christ sleeps looks suspiciously like a tomb or coffin, and His swaddling clothes like a burial shroud.  This is no accident, as the icon intends to call to mind, even with this portrayal of the Son of God's entry into human history, the events leading up to the end of His earthly life, along with his death and burial, and His subsequent resurrection from another similar cave.

Other details to look for include the animals, often an ox and a donkey, worshipping their Maker. Their presence indicates the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, 'The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master's crib; but Israel does not know Me, and the people do not understand Me.' (Isaiah 1:3)  Another scene shows one or two women helping the Virgin by bathing the infant Jesus.  Angels announce His birth to shepherds with their sheep.  In some icons, kings from the East are on their way to present their gifts.  And in almost all of them  there is the curious depiction of Joseph who looks despondent (who is, after all, having to experience all of this upheaval by faith) and who is being addressed by a bent old man who is in fact the devil tempting Joseph to despair.

1497, from St. Kirill Monastery, Cathedral of the Assumption, Russia

Nativity Cave as Tomb detail

An Ethiopian Icon

Very Busy.  Including the slaughter of the innocents and the flight into Egypt, among other scenes.

An Ethiopian Icon

A Coptic (Egyptian) icon

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